‘A Win’: New EPA Coal Ash Rules Signal a New Chapter for Polluted Communities

The regulations that followed the tragedy in Tennessee forced utilities to take better care of their coal ash waste by lining ponds to prevent groundwater contamination, requiring unlined and unsafe ponds to close, covering landfills to keep them from polluting the air, or moving the coal ash altogether. The rules also required utilities to publish public records of their waste ponds and landfills, monitor groundwater to detect contamination, and clean up contaminated groundwater when it’s found.

However, the rule exempted critical sites that stopped receiving waste before the new regulations went into effect, so environmental groups sued in 2022. Now, thanks to their initiative, the new rules have closed that loophole, offering populations like the Navajo new opportunities to hold polluters accountable and protect their air and water.

“The legacy ponds need the same kind of groundwater monitoring, need the same kind of structural determination, and need the same kind of closure rules,” said Megan Wachspress, a staff attorney with the Sierra Club. “Groundwater contamination is not always visible in the way that a big dirty plume in a river is.”

The updates also cover an entirely new pollution source to regulate: coal ash that’s placed on power plant sites, technically known as CCRMUs, coal combustion residuals management units. A coal plant may have piles of coal ash just lying around, so this addition targets the waste that may be more informally stored outside a landfill or pond.

However, the rule isn’t perfect. For example, if a facility has less than 1,000 tons of this specific solid waste, it is exempt from the rule for now. Coal ash that’s used as a soil alternative—as fill on yards and playgrounds, for instance—was also left out of the rule. Utilities will have about four years until they have to begin closing their legacy ponds, leaving communities exposed to the pollution until then. Then, it’s on the EPA to enforce the regulation and ensure polluters listen.

In 2023, the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance identified coal ash as a priority area, funneling more federal funds toward ensuring companies take action until 2027 at least. “The rule isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on unless it’s actually enforced,” said Lisa Evans, senior counsel at Earthjustice.

But these changes have been a long time coming. The coal industry has been on a decline since about 2010. Now, the U.S. is focused on building out clean energy infrastructure, but leaders can’t forget about what remains of the nation’s fossil fuel history. They must still contend with the contamination the coal industry left behind, especially as floods and storms made worse by climate change threaten to spread the pollution.

Indeed, some environmental advocates see the closure and remediation of coal facilities as integral to the clean energy transition. These sites are already connected to the grid, so they offer strong potential for the future of new clean energy projects, explained Eric Dixon, a senior researcher at the Ohio River Valley Institutea research group focused on sustainable economic development in Appalachia, where coal has reigned over and then abandoned communities.

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